Sunday, 6 July 2008

Hopefully This Is The Last Time I'll Have To Write This

Christ, this is irritating. My trusty PC has exploded again, forcing me to type this out on my battered and increasingly paint-stained laptop, which as some of you know is missing the "h" key, which makes typing "h" pretty hard. "Hard" was hard, too. Also "which". You get the idea.

Despite all these obstacles, however, I refuse to be silenced. Doctor Who must be berated, and it must be berated now. There was so much wrong with last night's drunken kebab of an episode that I hardly know where to start.

How about I get the good stuff out of the way first. That way I can prove my credentials as a non-troll (if you ever want to remember what being surrounded by idiots in a school playground is like, try telling on-line Who fans that their favourite show is a shade less than perfect [1]).

Erm...

Well, setting up two items (the Osterhagen key and the warp star) as potential board-changers in the grand RTD "Holy shit I've written this into the mother of all corners" tradition, only for both to end up useless, was pretty neat. Or at least it would have been if this little nod to how crap the man is at resolving stories didn't make Martha completely useless (and what was the point of all that stuff with the German woman?) and then get cancelled out by having a console that can both disarm Daleks before remotely operate them, followed by a device that can miraculously blow them all up without difficulty. But I'm getting ahead of myself; this is supposed to be me being nice. There'll be plenty of time for complaining later.

Erm...

Davros was good pretty much across the board. Julian Bleach did very well at apeing the crazy cripple's established style, and there were a number of nice ideas and moments around him. The conversation about the Doctor creating warriors just as Davros does was great, so too was him recognising Sarah Jane as being on Skaro at the very beginning. Davros is always at his best when calling the Doctor on his bullshit (see also: Resurrection of the Daleks), in fact the recurring theme of the last of the Time Lords getting spanked by people for his reckless behaviour (and damn but Harriet Jones had an excellent point about him last episode, just before she caught the crappy end of a Dalek ray-gun) is one of the few parts of the new show that actually suggests these people know what they're doing. Of course, Davros might have had more impact if... wait, no, bad Squid, this is supposed to be the complimentary section.

Erm...

Actually I'm done (aside from the small point that I'd forgotten how attractive Gwen Cooper is as long as she isn't smiling, screaming, or cheating on her boyfriend and expecting us to feel sorry for her). We now enter the far larger part of this post in which we dissect the reasons why last night's episode was so very disappointing in so many ways.

Let's start with the cliffhanger, shall we? I'll try and dispense with it as quickly as RTD did, which is no small feat, since it was so unbelievably thrown away.

The big problem, of course, was the Doctor. When I say "thrown away", I mean on two different levels. There's the obvious one, of course, which is the fact that the "redirect it to the hand" idea is so totally imbecilic that it makes a mockery of the idea that there was any danger at all (to think people have been worried all week that we might see the end of Tennant's era) and ties into the long-running problem New Who has with cliffhangers, i.e. that they are inevitably idiotically resolved within moments with "solutions" somewhere along the lines of "let's run in a new direction" or "car windows: not that hard to break". The tying up of a cliffhanger is supposed to invoke a sense of relief at a bullet dodged, not of feeling cheated. Of course, feeling cheated is very much a RTD hallmark, and we'll return to this later.

The other thing that was tossed away, of course, was one of the Doctor's regeneration. Is he the Eleventh Doctor, now? Or, more accurately, I guess, does that mean there can now only be twelve Doctors instead of thirteen? I mean, he had to use up all that regeneration energy in order to recover from being shot (it's oddly a shame Jack blew the offending pepper-pot up, since it would have been far cooler for it to return to the mothership to tell all his mates about how it was the one who ran into the Oncoming Storm and then did for him) so I guess so. That's a pretty major thing, irrespective of the fact that when and if we get to the end of the Doctor's lifespan the writers will surely get around it one way or another, and to have it hand-waved away (with typical speed-is-better-than-conviction Tennant bluster) so that we can get on with all the running and explosions managed to completely trivialised what happened (and yes, I'm happy with complaining about trivialisation in a Saturday evening family entertainment show, since I'm apparently expected to feel bad when some family I never saw before gets subjected to "maximum exterminate". What does that even mean?).

Bonus ruin-tension points go to Miss Smith escaping certain death purely because Mickey and Jackie turn up just in time to scythe the Daleks down with their improbably-sized hand-cannons (which Mickey later kisses, a moment so mind-boggling stupid my brain refuses to accept it exists, let alone occurs in a show some people are convinced deserves BAFTAs).

I mean, let's stop and think about this for one moment, which, let's face it, is exactly what RTD scripts are calibrated to avoid [2]. Mickey and Jackie materialise at the exact right moment to save Sarah Jane. Why? Have they been watching her all this time? How? Why her, given that entire fucking human race is being blown to crap? Mickey met her once, for God's sake; and Jackie not at all.

Ah, Jackie. Jackie, who spent the first season as terminally unfunny comic relief? Whose best moment to date (which was also the only moment of Love & Monsters that didn't make me want to vomit out my internal organs) was realising that she's essentially useless? Now she's a goddamn interdimensional freedom fighter? Hefting some kind of one-woman plasma Howitzer that takes out Dalek's like they're one hit-point ninjas about to take on Bruce Lee?

We'll get to the Daleks in a minute, let's keep being mean about Jackie for now. The extraordinary, logic-busting decision to retool her as a planet-hopping bad-ass stems from exactly the same misguided premise as the idea that said globe-sliding mo-fo will show up at the last minute to keep an investigative journalist from getting her innards poached. It's a problem we might as well refer to as the Davies Fallacy; and it's been remarked upon by a lot of people a lot of times in a lot of places; the Big Cheese seems convinced you can make characters important to us as viewers by telling us we should find them important. The fans might be relieved Sarah Jane has been saved, but in the middle of a planetary invasion she's very small potatoes. Christ, the man spent two seasons telling us Rose was the bestest companion ever, but never gave us any reason why (and a lot of reasons why not, the snivelling whiny self-absorbed bitch). The idea was just constantly repeated in the hope we'd swallow it: it was TV characterisation by propaganda. He's gone down a similar road with Donna, all and sundry are desperate to convince her that she's important, but there's no reason to believe it other than by force of repetition. The return of Mickey and Jackie is an extension of this, we're supposed to care they've come back to kick some alien-Nazi backside, but there's no effort put into making us give a damn, they just come back, and in an amazingly implausible way to boot.

RTD is kind enough to explain his reasoning behind all this at the end of the episode. This is about "family". So much about it, apparently, that they end up having to use the TARDIS to move the Earth (one of those moments that I can't exactly refute, who knows what a Type 40 can do, but I still think is fucking stupid, and this is my blog so shut up) purely as an excuse for an alien technology-based group hug. I didn't watch Confidential last night, but I'd be surprised if no-one said something along the lines of "Making this episode was like a family reunion, in a way". Dr B described it as ludicrously expensive fan-fiction, and I can see what she means. Fan-fiction seems (and I acknowledge I'm hardly an expert) to be entirely based around putting together as many characters from the past together to join forces; frequently with an obvious Mary-Sue for company (and given how much time RTD has spent having other characters convince her she's special and worthy, I think Donna could probably qualify), without any thought given to whether or not it's a good idea. I've mentioned how useless Martha was over the last two episodes (run away, fail to use key, that's it), but aside from calling the Doctor last week, Sarah Jane was pretty much pointless, too. So was Jack, frankly, though at least he let himself get exterminated and tried to get something going: Gwen and Ianto spent most of the episode sat on their time-frozen arses. Rose didn't really do much to help, either. It was fairly obvious there was a danger squeezing so many characters into the story would lead to no-one being well-served, and that was exactly what ended up happening.

In fact, the only reason Rose seemed to be there at all was for the scene at Bad Wolf Bay, another moment with YOU SHOULD FEEL SOMETHING NOW flashing over it in giant neon letters (seriously, the Bad Wolf overload at the end of Turn Left was more subtle, and that re-wrote the fucking TARDIS). I've covered how the whole idea makes no damn sense whatsoever, and to be honest the whole back-up Doctor stuff seemed borderline creepy, all we're supposed to care about is that Rose gets to live her life with David Tennant's clone (who may be a lot less interesting to Rose now that he can't take her to any point in time and space).

All of this is compounded by the sheer weight of nonsense and bull-shit required to even get to the point where Rose can wander off into the sunset with her consolation prize. Why has Rose come back to the alternative world? I mean, given how desperate she was and is to get back to the Doctor, why wouldn't she stay? Time to slip in some nonsense techno-babble from Donna to justify why she can't: let's hope no-one remembers Mickey got to stay on our Earth all of two minutes earlier. Doctor-Donna will have to have her memory erased because there's too much Time-Lord for her human parts to cope with; but the cheap knock-off Doctor has all the memories of his double, and apparently he's going to be fine (or if not, the end of Rose's story is a lot less happy than it appeared). It wouldn't be a difficult fix, probably, but it's just completely blown aside in favour of the Next Big Emotional Scene. Everything gets ignored, or pathetically explained away with meaningless crap, just so we can lurch from crisis to tearjerker to crisis again. In fact, one can't escape the impression that RTD starts with a list of emotions he wants the viewer to experience, then moves on to the most cynical methods he can think of to get us there [3], and finally begrudgingly slaps together some feeble non-explanations to sort of link them all together.

Whilst we're on the subject of contradiction, let's get back to the Daleks. Again, and I seem to be saying this a lot these days, there are two parts to this. There's the contradiction in the episode itself. Why have the Daleks rebelled against Davros again? He managed to make the Imperial Daleks fanatically loyal (and deeply fashionable into the bargain), what went wrong this time? Plus, if Dalek Caan got so disgusted with the damage his fellow fascists had unleashed upon the universe, was rescuing Davros and helping rebuild the Dalek empire a particularly good move? Why betray him at the eleventh hour [4] when he could just not have helped at all?

But there's a more long-term contradiction with the Daleks, too, and it's the flip-side of the "she's important because I say so!" phenomenon. Every time they appear we're repeatedly told they're the Harrods of evil (though I'm pretty sure that Harrods is the Harrods of evil), the most hideous-est of the hideous. Sarah Jane almost lapses into catalepsy when she hears their broadcast [5], but as Miles (who I quote a lot these days) points out, she's only met them twice, first on Exxilon, where they couldn't even get their guns working properly, and then on Skaro, where they were still first-generation, with none of the new cool stuff, like shields and flying. But we know they're scary, wait, scratch that, we've been constantly told that they're scary, so we're supposed to buy into her terror (I'm perfectly happy with Jack bricking it, of course, since the Daleks have managed to kill him for longer than anyone else has).

The trouble is, of course, that the Daleks are so built-up as the greatest threat to life, the all-conquering invincible interstellar bastards, that it's difficult at the best of times to plausibly defeat them. The first Dalek we met in this latest iteration of the show killed itself. In Manhattan the Daleks were only stopped when their own slaves rebelled against them (and even then that only worked because the Daleks were dumb enough to give said slaves weapons that could overcome their own defenses), and those two stories combined featured all of five Daleks, one of whom ended up walking around in a suit and spatz. "The bigger they are, the more ludicrous the method for beating them" seems to be almost axiomatic in science-fiction and fantasy, and this is hardly helped by the fact that apparently slapping together gigantic Dalek empires is a piece of piss these days. Easy to assemble, impossible to beat, Davros must be so proud; apparently to the point where he can grow them from the cells of his own body. I wondered what the point of that was, only to find out last night that it means they can conveniently all be instantly destroyed with a flick of a switch. Sounds like the sort of thing an evil super-genius might have planned for, you'd think, but you'd be wrong.

All of this combines to form the reason why this episode, why most RTD episodes, and why the show in general is so problematic and frustrating. Stories don't tend to a conclusion, they teleport to one. The situation gets worse, and worse, and worse and then OH MY GOD THE DOCTOR DOES IT AGAIN WE'RE ALL HAPPY HOORAY! I'm starting to feel like Kathy Bates in Misery, shouting at the audience for cheering when the Rocketeer dives out the car, even though we know he went of the cliff. It's almost the same thing here; you can't get any satisfaction from resolutions that come so completely out of left field and which make no sense upon even the most casual of inspections.

Well, that was longer than I intended (I was going to actually write something important this afternoon). Perhaps none of this will apply once Moffat takes over (I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing what he does with the show). I hope so, I'm getting tired of seeing the same old shit every year, and watching the same idiots fall for it.

Update: I can't believe I forgot to point out that in Turn Left the universe explodes due to what is presumably the reality bomb, even though the Earth doesn't get stolen to allow it to get powered.

[1] Did mention that my right bracket button is missing, too? This is particularly bad for someone as aside-happy as I am. "Happy" was hard too.

[2] An immediate corollary being that his dedicated sycophants refuse to recognise "thinking about what's happening" as a valid practice whilst an episode is airing. To them it apparently ruins the fun if they have to stop and raise their eyebrows. Sometimes the show is likened to a roller-coaster ride, something that manipulates the emotions to the extent that higher brain functions recede. This, of course, misses the point that genuinely good TV should satisfy both. In fact, it even manages to miss the point about roller-coasters, too, which is that when odd one of those things part of what makes it work is the fear of falling, which actually makes some fucking sense. There's a reason why I called this idiocy a "drunken kebab"; the act of paying your hard-earned cash in order to consume ragged strips of meat that have been reheated every night since the Berlin wall came down requires the same dedication to shouting down your cortex as does managing to enjoy a season finale of Doctor Who.

[3] While we're on the subject of cynical manipulation, and for that matter being cheated, it was bad enough in Season 2 that we were repeatedly told that Rose was going to die, only for "going to die" to mean "listed as dead by the media". This time we get told that Donna is going to die, only for "die" to mean "get amnesia", which counts as death for "a version" of Donna. It's the same old hammered-in build-up followed by rug-pull squirm-out. What makes it worse, of course, is that I think I genuinely would have felt something watching Donna get wiped and returned to Earth (the Doctor's goodbye was fairly well done) if we hadn't been promised something more for the entire damn season. Lawrence Mile's has been bitching once more about how arc plots are a bad idea, but he's missing the point. The problem isn't having a story that lasts a year, the problem is
RTD pulled off a season-long bait-and-switch. Again.

[4] I note that I'm running out of different ways of saying "last minute". I used to think the cavalry ending was overused by B5, but this is ridiculous. Three sudden appearances of rescuers with
uber-guns taking out Daleks in the same two-parter? Admittedly Jack was a fraction too late with his teleport, but the reception is still there. That teleport, by the way, was using a device that can carry at least three people, meaning leaving his team-mates in the place being used to call the Doctor was pretty selfish, although that takes a back seat to the alternating number guff that is supposed to explain why that damn machine only ever works at the end of the season. He had to know it was changing between 4 and 9? There are 90 possible combinations, how long would it take to check through them? For that matter, how does a bastardised Sontaran teleport system help with a Time Agent device from the far future? Like I said; choose emotion to be invoked, manipulate it by a given event, hope to squeeze rationale into the cracks.

[5] Do they have a
Dalek in the fleet whose job it is to just keep saying "EXTERMINATE!" into the radio? Man, it must suck to be that one.

1 comment:

Pause said...

Daleks evidently obey a special variant of the Inverse Law of Ninjutsu, where the object of proportionality is not Bruce Lee's legs but a combination of the implausibility and locality of an alien(-derived) device.

I was also curious as to why Davros, being reduced to a 'pet' of his creations, was kept in the same dungeon-vault thing as a machine capable of controlling them all.

I did enjoy the Daleks shouting "Exterminieren!" though. That made the episode, although I'm curious as to whether they were being thoughtful and wanted to make sure everybody knew what was coming (though presumably they can't enjoy watching everybody running around screaming, not having the emotional capacity), or are mildly obsessive-compulsive and need to be understood. Poor, poor needy Daleks.